Home, sick.

I drove east from LA into the desert yesterday, and got homesick. I made my way onto the 60 towards Riverside, thinking about how this particular route was like a tour through the fall of the American Empire. I was bombed by billboards for detox and botox, fast food and weight loss, banks and bankruptcy, deteriorating shopping malls and discount outlets baking in the heat. A witness to endless blankets of housing cut with corporate strips and parking lots, cheap and ugly boxes, fade-out to irrelevance before they’re even thrown up. Everyone speeding past me to get somewhere.

Southern California could easily pass as some alien other-world, some kind of space invasion from the future, but this is our American reality.

So my homesickness was partly a disorientation, a geographical shift that finds me driving on freeways after several months walking around the ancient cities. But my sadness today, the dread — this is about bloated and unaware America choking on its own fat. War-loving and arrogant. I’ve been hit with a mega-culture shock, returning to this place I call home. All it took was a brief step outside and my America looks like a foreign, uncanny version of itself, threatening me with vague ideas of opportunity and comfort. Contagious and spreading, of course.

And this forces me to think about my own relationship to design and branding. The sickness of corporate branding guidelines used to ruin landscapes, to sell junk and failure.

Not all branding is the same. But at the risk of oversimplifying, I’d like to question the value of much of the work we produce today. Designers, marketers, “branding experts” blindly grabbing clients and opportunities in the name of clarity or bottom line or good design. In the end we produce a lot of surface and clutterstuff to promote and sell our clients, most of it irrelevant, unsustainable or both. Not all of it, mind you. But I stand there looking at the retail junkyards of Penn Station or JFK or I-10 and shudder to think about how I (could) have contributed to these failed environments.

And when we’re not promoting stuff, we’re busy promoting ourselves.

I need a new technique. Inspiration this week came in the form of a tweet: He got hooked on what he was doing; curiosity came to supersede ambition as his principal motivation. This resonates for me. Taken out of context, this is one way for me to articulate what I’ve been doing this year, challenging myself to get to work outside the office. Curiosity aimed at personal growth, an interior view. My questions today: how can I use this motivation to create awesome, thick value in the world? How do I produce meaningful work now?


  1. Hi Paul:

    FYI: I’m now in an international airport myself, having a tall Starbucks and a Cinnabon; trying to rid America of a small bit of its ‘detritus’ as hastily as possible.

    Request: Your above is tellingly observant and in my opinion very accurate, but please do not lose your bright, ironic, sense of perspective. (I know you really didn’t – just saying). Welcome back to the whole caboodle.

  2. Paul … I echo Eric M. You’ve cut to the chase … And while it hurts, I can’t be bit a bit positive in my outlook for the US of A if only knowing that there are people like you not only observing and recounting the truth — but striving to act on it, too … Keep pushing, keep challenging us, keep inspiring us … So sad — really sad — to have missed you in NYC this time around …

  3. Beautiful little essay you’ve written. Maybe, though, there’s no way to be upbeat. Hell in a handbarrow, dept. The pleasures of pessimism are selfish, surely. But they are pleasures.

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting Eric and Chad and James. This post definitely describes a perspective gained, not lost. And where there’s a wider view, there’s usually growth (optimistic and hopeful). That’s why I end the post with sincere questions about how to move forward (in my own work) with a new strategy.

  5. apropos wider view:you could read your shocking experience in la by using the concepts alain badiou has developed: according to him, we find ourselves now “devoid of world”[no cognitive mapping,no space for meaningful engagement] because of living in a “neutral economico-symbolic machine’, also known as capitalism [invented in europe]. the dynamics of this system undermine every stable form of representation,its ‘self revolutions’ constantly overcoming its own limits are no match for our ideas of emancipatory interventions.[ paraphrasing zizek]. this is at least a frame for thinking about it all with our finite little brains! remember the brain on wheels in DUNE, it was incredibly stupid because it only had DESIRES!

  6. I scroll down looking for a like button, amused and distressed that my dialogue is reduced to a single option to approve.

    Faced with my own projections of a distopia and back pain, I claim that they both show where energy is blocked. And then I move to re-align myself and re-envision the future and a re-birth -let a new life begin.

  7. As we would say in the hood in BK a.k.a. Brooklyn, I feel you, I hear where ya comin’ from… I relocated from NYC after 38 years being a native New Yorker, born n’ bred in Brooklyn and spent some years in the Bronx, to Tucson AZ. I’m beyond homesick, however I feel free from the struggle that NYC gave me. A Love & Hate relationship, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it more as a tourist than a native.

    Truth be told, you didn’t have to go west to have an epiphany, just take a drive to the South Bronx, go to Brownsville Brooklyn dominated by public housing developments of various types. Spend the day in the hood, talk to a real native New Yorker. I’m quite confident you’ll be re-inspired by their struggle. Not a some self indulgent, wannabe hip mini you’s, kissing sphincter’s, I’m a true artist on Daddy’s trust fund like Chad & Erik M. Neo Williamsberg plastiques…

    At the end of the day, that’s what happens when we live within our own bubble.

  8. P.S.

    Will someone please put down the Grey Poupon.


  9. Hi Paul, I am the landscape architecture student talked to you in MSU. I feel the same way when I travel back from Europe. Your point of view reminds me of J.B. Jackson’s work. He sparked the idea of cultural geography and questioned our view of landscape. I highly recommend his book Discovering the Vernacular Landscape.

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